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Fishers of People

San Williams

January 26, 2014
Matthew 4:12-23

Last Tuesday morning I was sitting in Starbuck’s reading articles on today’s scripture. In one of the articles, I came upon the following sentence:  Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things…and he still does.  I looked up from my reading and noticed the people around me.  An elderly couple was reading the day’s comic strip.  A young man sitting nearby was playing a video game on his iPhone.  Several people were working on their computers.  Some were reading the newspaper.  A few were engaged in conversation, while others hurried out the door on their way to work with their to-go coffee mugs in hand.  The scene prompted me to wonder:  How many, if any, of these ordinary people feel called?

Expanding the question, I wondered about those of us who belong to congregations and show up in worship.  Do most church members today live with the conviction that they have a Christian vocation, a calling?  A research grant funded by the Lily Endowment sought to answer that question.  The research showed that while vocation, calling, is a persistent theme in preaching and teaching, most church members who participated in the research didn’t connect what they do outside of the church as worthy of God’s attention and interest.  In a word, these church members didn’t feel called. What are the reasons for this?

For one thing, we probably romanticize the way the first disciples responded to Jesus’ call.  We imagine that these men simply heard Jesus for the first time and were so mystified by him that, without another thought, they left their nets, their families, their homes and followed Jesus.  It’s one thing to admire such unquestioning faith, but something else to imitate it. For sure, there are people who have Damascus Road-type experiences, in which Christ’s call comes like a bolt out of the blue and changes everything.  But most of us can’t relate to this notion of calling if it always means a sudden, all-or-nothing change—if it means we are to get up and leave everyone and everything to follow Jesus.

If you were pulling out of your driveway one morning and suddenly Jesus appeared, tapping on your window, would you immediately step out of the car, leave the motor running and follow Jesus?  Or if you were in your study working on your monthly finances and Jesus suddenly entered, can you imagine that you would get up from your chair, walk away from your unresolved bank statement, and follow Jesus?  Truth is, most of us consider that the response of the first disciples is beyond our reach, and far outside our own experience.  This may be one reason so many church members report that they don’t relate to the notion of calling.

But take note: modern scholarship has challenged the assumption that Jesus’ call, and the disciples’ response, were as clear-cut and out-of-the-blue as we typically believe them to be. These scholars note that, as Matthew says, Jesus had made his home in Capernaum.  Capernaum was a village of perhaps a thousand people.  It’s likely that Peter, James, Andrew, and John had met Jesus, knew something about him and already had a relationship with him.  Further, while they left their nets, it’s not clear that they never returned home.  In fact, Matthew tells us that Jesus and the disciples did later return to Capernaum, where they stayed at Peter’s house with his mother-in-law.  All this is to say that the call to the first disciples may not have been an abrupt, take-it-or-leave it kind of experience.  Chances are that for these first disciples—as for disciples today–the call to follow Jesus grew out of a relationship, and their responses to Jesus’ call were varied and complex.

But there’s another reason why so many Christians today have difficulty believing that they have a calling. And that’s because we’ve associated the notion of calling primarily, perhaps even exclusively, to our occupations, our work.  Growing up in the church, I recall that sermons on Christian vocation always referred to full-time church work as pastors, Christian educators, missionaries and the like.  Of course, some people are called into religious or service type occupations that can be deeply satisfying and purposeful.  But that’s not true for everyone. In fact, for many modern people work is, well, just work. Could it be, then, that one reason this notion of calling is lost on so many is that we’ve equated calling exclusively with the work we do?

Look now at how Jesus expresses the call to discipleship.  “Follow me,” Jesus declared, “and I will make you fishers for people.”  The implication here is that discipleship is, first and foremost, less about the work we do than about the relationships we have.   The disciples Jesus called held a variety of occupations—fishermen, tax collectors, laborers, to name a few.  Whatever their work, he called them all into new and deeper relationships—with himself, with one another, and with the neighbors they would meet–both friend and foe, Jew and Gentile. “Follow me,” Jesus called, and I will draw you into a new relationship with the outcast, the sick, the excluded.”

“Follow me,” he said, “and I will teach you how to love one another, bear each other’s burdens, and care for the least among you.”  By calling these disciples to be “fishers of people” he was inviting them to  relate to one another, and to all people, as God in Christ relates to people—with forgiveness, love and grace.

If we make the first disciples out to be super heroes, and if we attach the notion of call solely to the work we do, then it’s no wonder that so many churchgoers find the idea of calling almost meaningless.  But if we hear the call as an invitation to bring God’s love, healing and acceptance into all our relationships, then Christ’s call applies to each one of us, no matter where we live or work.    Whatever else being fishers of people entails, it means that God is working in us and through us to care for those around us, drawing us into deeper, Christ-shaped relationships with those whom God has placed in our lives.

And friends, Christ’s call to his disciples is an urgent call, and one that we must take up immediately, without delay.  In fact, let me invite you to call to mind one person with whom you are in relationship.  It may be a good relationship, or it may be a troubled one.  It may be one that brings you particular joy, or one that fills you with sorrow. It may be a close relationship, or someone you hardly know.  Who comes to mind?  Once you have that person in mind, pray for that person, believing that God is using you to make a difference in the life of the person for whom you are prayer.  Isn’t this what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and a fisher of people?

Please pray…